Germany takeaways

Stan Goff
11 min readJan 10


Some first reflections for 2023

We haven’t been on a plane together, Sherry and me, since we returned from Costa Rica in 2011. In my winter years, I’ve come to hate air travel . . . or I should say airports and commercial aircraft. My rather substantial hearing loss is largely attributable to the countless hours I was exposed to low frequency noise from aircraft when I was in the military — rotor wing and fixed wing, turbo-props and jets, government and commercial, American and foreign. The thrill wore off a long time ago; and as I said, it’s been supplanted by an aversion — an aversion compounded by my loathing of commercial airports which remind me of something between Blade Runner and Children of Men, with relentless oversized telecasts accosting one’s senses from every direction as you’re forced to eat price-gouging food and watch rich people being strange in the ways only the rich can afford.

But we have a son who lives and works in Germany, and we decided to visit their family for Christmas and see something new, so off we went, flying east away from Winter Storm Elliot, escaping hours before the storm reached Detroit, and the airline debacle of Southwest (we used Delta/Air France). Quick change in Amsterdam onto a puddle jumper that bounced along the tops of rain clouds all the way to Stuttgart. We took off at dusk in the US and arrived at dawn in Germany, sleepless and raw.

I won’t give detailed accounts of our day trips or our two-day sojourn to Switzerland. We had a wonderful time with family over Christmas and New Year, the best part just being with them, and the little trips were wonderful.

But this post isn’t a travelogue. It’s a recounting of impressions and intrusive thoughts about a place that is so different (and yet the same) in so many ways from the US.

The first thing you notice from the air as you arrive is rooftops. Pitched roofs on Germany and steeply pitched for the most part, with lots of gable windows. Red is the predominant color. Germans don’t do asphalt roofs. They do clay tile, or metal with solar panels. I won’t launch into a comparison between asphalt and tile (tile is better), except to say that asphalt is cheaper; but I will say that asphalt is environmentally nastier and, in terms of beauty, asphalt is uglier. Americans have a high tolerance for ugly, and it shows.

One place this US toleration of ugliness is apparent while one is in Germany is along the highways — which are far better maintained and managed than US thoroughfares. In particular, let’s discuss billboards. In the US, the only place I’ve seen where these sensory offenses are controlled is the State of Vermont. Germany is like Vermont writ large. No billboards. This is an ugliness that goes un-tolerated in Germany. Even the most ordinary landscape, relieved of these monstrous, mouthy eyesores, is transformed into something more calmingly bucolic, more inviting of the transcendent. Public views are one form of the commons, and they deserve protection. The American toleration of ugliness is directly related to our progressive rejection of any commons at all.

Billboards are an unmitigated evil.

The other thing that stood out about highways was the complete absence of roadkill. I don’t know how Germans accomplish this, whether they clean it up quickly, or somehow prevent as many animals crossing roads, or whether they’ve so few animals there are few left to run down. But I can’t seem to drive a mile down any of the roads here in Michigan without passing a dog, cat, deer, racoon, fox, skunk. possum, bird, or squirrel that has been added to the sum of blood sacrifices to our automotive pantheon.

Speaking of commons, I noticed early on that Germany — where people have cars and like them — is laced with hike-n-bike trails. Germans like automobiles, but they haven’t defaulted, as Americans largely have, to traveling on their asses. I’ve seen Americans use their cars to pick up things a block away. Germans walk. They walk a lot. Obesity in Germany is about half that of the US (though throughout Europe, fast food and automotive travel are ratcheting up the numbers). I’m not cracking on fat people. I think fat-shaming is horrendously cruel. I am citing obesity here as a cultural correlative. You see a lot of thick, meaty calves on Germans, and narrower waistlines, even in a country where twelve-year-olds take cigarette breaks with their teachers, where everyone drinks beer, and where the two food groups appear to be pork and bread. Walking: it’s a primordially necessary thing.

There’s another thing, though, with regard to all that walking and smoking and drinking and pork. Everyone in Germany can go to the doctor for free. A big medical bill in Germany is a thirty euro (close to $30) co-pay. Even after decades of neoliberalism, Germans haven’t become nearly as gullible or obtuse as Americans about medical care and costs. This is clearly seen as a common good in Germany, and it’s one social democratic artifact that no one seems inclined there to put on capital’s altar. They keep up the maintenance on roadways; and they keep up the maintenance on the bodies of residents. Here in the US, we exclaim, “ . . . but soCIaLiSm!” while we get fleeced.

Which brings me to my next point about education.

Short disclaimer: the ten or so people who actually read what I write already know I’m a acolyte of the late historian-philosopher-priest, Ivan Illich. I still share all his criticisms of “development,” of modernity, and of the institutional trajectories of Big Medicine and Big Education. How that fits with what I’m saying here will be too digressive, but I may take the time to parse and clarify in some later post. Long story short, these institutions are here, warts and all, and the best that can be hoped for politically speaking is still some form of strong social democracy.

Public education in Germany is better than in the US; but one cannot separate “school” from its contexts. For example, where US school kids are accompanied to and from school — either by parents or a bus driver — German kids often take public transport, leave school with their friends, on their own, and often do their homework together in coffee shops and such then hang out. German kids have plenty of homework — they are expected to read their books (and keep up when teachers are sick — no subs are used) — but they get out of school at 1 PM. Lunch is not the last meal at school, but the first meal after school. Most learn English, the lingua franca of Europe (and the world), and all are also taught Latin and Greek. Teacher pay averages an equivalent to $62,000 a year (US=$43,500) where the cost of living is on average more than 30 percent less than in the US. So there’s that, too, and teachers don’t reach into their own pockets for school supplies. Nor are teaching evaluations tied to test performance — creating the incentive to “teach the test.” There is a “tracking” system in German education, that does start early, however one feels about that, there are strong emphases on special education (separate, not mainstreamed) and on thorough vocational skills training for kids that aren’t aimed at more academic or business pursuits. Homeschooling is prohibited — something that goes against my grain, but there it is. The tradeoff in Germany (and Switzerland, where we visited) for stronger social democratic institutions is a higher degree of technocratic control (and in Switzerland, what I consider over-automation).

The generally better quality of and accessibility to schools in Germany is likewise contextual, a set of feedback loops — an ecology. As to tracking, kids are not tracked, as they are in the US, into prison. Jobs, trades, and crafts are alive and well maintaining trains, buses, well-constructed and maintained highways (the US could learn a lot about traffic management form Germans), stone hardscapes (stone walls and cobblestone everywhere), tunnels, bridges, and those aforementioned hike-n-bike trails. Which is all to say that most people are in some way imbricated within what remains of the social democratic compact. Education is one gear in this self-reproducing dynamic.

Without explaining it in any detail, another facet of German social ecology is the easy co-location of urban and rural. It’s not at all unusual to see a herd of sheep grazing next to suburban housing, or tended fields and mini-orchards patched together with streets, shops, industry, and housing. Garden allotments are ubiquitous in the cities, each plot with its own little tool shed. There are no county-sized, subsidized corn fields like there are in the US — where corn has become the basis of environmentally disastrous industrial food production. Small, rotated fields are the rule. I’ve no idea how Germany supports food production — though it appears they prohibit GMO farming and the soft drinks are made with beet or cane sugar instead of corn sugar. In whatever case, and here I’ll editorialize as a Polanyian, neither medicine nor food production should be subject to market rules. These are commons . . . or should be.

In part, this has to do with spatial economy. Germans, and Europeans more generally, have learned to be compact. If you drive, you’d better be god at tight turns, close proximity to pedestrians, and narrow parking spaces. There are only four US states with greater population density than all of Germany (Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts). Whereas increases in the number of human occupants in Germany has compelled them to tighten up and get spatially smarter, in the US we seem to do a kind of national man-spread, gobbling up farmland and forests to make strip malls and multi-acre parking lots. Here in Michigan, the rule seems to be to buy an all-terrain vehicle, even if you never leave the city, that approximates the size of an Abrams tank. In Germany, the compact sedan rules. Oh, and there are buses and trains for those who have a bit of patience and are wiling to walk a bit more. None of that mass transport nonsense here, though. (soCIaLiSm!)

All the stereotypes about the German obsession with neatness and cleanliness appear to be true. Tidiest place I’ve ever seen. Even their construction sites are tidied and organized before everyone knocks off for beer and schnitzel. Even the ubiquitous graffiti seems neat, well-organized, and symmetrical. Litter is rare, and separated recycling waste bins are always at hand.

Which is not to say there aren’t any environmental sinks. The country is thoroughly modernized, with big shiny buildings and plenty of tech. All those big shiny artifacts of late modernity come at a cost — as we ought to know — but wherever the landfills, toxins, and social disorder is which inevitably underwrites this entropic lifestyle, it’s out of sight and out of mind. I haven’t done the research for inputs and feedstocks flowing into Germany or the entropic outputs, but they’re somewhere. We traded in Euros there, and as far as I can tell, that’s really a Deutschmark that’s been imposed on the whole EU, making Germany the core in Europe’s core-periphery dynamic. Other people elsewhere are having the downsides exported onto them.

Such is the case in every instance of modern “prosperity,” and more so when that prosperity includes the surplus capacity for aesthetic pleasantry.

Solar panels require silica mines, silver mines, bauxite mines, copper mines, boron mines, phosphate mines, and coal mines to provide the electricity for mining and refining. Petroleum is also required for transportation and material processing. To be economical, most of the materials are mined and/or assembled using cheap Asian labor. You can see how this goes. The so-called “footprint” of a solar panel in Germany doesn’t land on Germany. Germany’s top ten imports are electrical equipment, computers, vehicles, fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics, medical equipment, gems and precious metals, organic chemicals, and iron/steel. Most of these are obtained through “unequal exchange” with less prosperous countries, including its less prosperous EU peripheries who no longer have national currencies, but a currency controlled by German banks. Right now Germany is facing fuel shortages because it had become dependent upon imports from Russia.

It’s like Germany finally won the European war, but is still facing the threat of the “mongols” from the east.

More than that, though, when we were in Stuttgart (where part of our family currently resides), the temperatures were way above normal. Last summer was the hottest on record; and German homes and buildings — based on the older climactic norms — don’t widely employ air conditioning.

The aesthetic middle-class prosperity of Germany is on an ever-shakier foundation; and we know how this often works. There is no more dangerous class than the “middle” class when it is threatened with insecurity. One that happens, they begin pining for an idealized past, looking for scapegoats, and seeking some strongman as a political father figure. Germany knows a lot about this, and so this reactive process will meet more resistance than it does elsewhere; but it’s still a thing, a somewhat predictable thing. Right-wing reaction has a more receptive home in the US than it does in Germany. That doesn’t mean it “can’t happen here” in Germany. Right-wing reaction is growing in every European country right now as the neoliberal experiment continues failing into ever more generalized precarity and as the great extinction event that we minimize as “climate change” continues to cascade. Debt, refugees, the overwhelming and obsolescence of infrastructure, the exhaustion of “resources,” war, and spiritual calamity. No one is immune. Nature . . . the real world . . . recognizes no national boundaries, no ideologies, no imaginary “solutions.”

Who knows where this all goes?


As I said, I enjoyed our trip, our day-excursions, the time with far-flung family. I enjoyed Germany (and Switzerland). Apparently I have a substantial number of ancestors from thereabouts, though my mother’s and daughter’s genealogical research showed that whoever was once there had already migrated to the Great Britain around the time of the Norman Conquest (leading us to think we were English). But I’m 100 percent American in terms of my upbringing and experience. For better and for worse.

We endured the plane trek back across the Atlantic, and landed in good ole Detroit. Drove home at night down I-94, Michigan-12, and M-52 . . . over the broken asphalt (dodging potholes is what I call “the Michigan slalom), past the road kill, the strip malls, the box stores, the tacky-ass billboards, the litter, the urban assault vehicles, the unkempt yards and houses, the fallow corn ranges, and the fast food outlets, until we arrived at our own house — where shit is exactly where we want it based on twelve years of making it a home together, where we speak the language, and where other people share our general circumstance with the same familiarity, the same combination of acceptance and complaint.

Everyone has to live somewhere and few have the wherewithal to choose exactly the right place. We’re warm, comfortable, well-fed, and unafraid. That’s enough, though I’d still like to get rid of those fucking billboards.

There’s no place like home.



Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”